My 48 Hours With The Lexus RX400h

By Remy C.

January 25th 2005

You know me and SUVs... No love loss there. Just saw an ad on TV for the Ford Escape, not even their new hybrid mind you, with the tag line: "100% Pure SUV" as if that was a "good thing."

For a lot of people in the environmental community SUV and Hybrid are mutually exclusive. To them, Hybrid SUV is an "oxymoron." And frankly, I tend not to disagree... But... (and it's a big but!)

I was driving up Main Street in New Canaan the other day, you know, that quaint little Connecticut town where they shot an absolutely horrid Stepford Wives remake (they should have left well enough alone on that one!) Would you believe practically every other car parked on that street was a Lexus RX 330!!! It's become the Yuppie Assault Vehicle of choice for the affluent suburban housewife with two kids in tow. Any amount of precious gasoline we can save the world is a Godsend in my book!

So when Toyota called to offer Electrifying Times their new RX 400h to test drive for a couple of days, was I going to say no? Hell no! Who am I to protest too loudly? I was going to meet them halfway and curtail my principles just a little! :)

As luck would have it, the Lexus arrived the morning of a snow storm, but I was committed to drive it all the way to New Haven where I promised the faculty and staff of the Industrial Ecology dept. at the Yale School of Forestry a first peek. Matthew Nemerson, president of the Connecticut Technology Council, already a proud owner of a fully loaded 2004 Prius, showed me how to use the GPS navigation system.

Matthew wondered why fuel gages never display how many gallons are in the tank, only showing a dial reading full to empty. That's a good question. Speedometers tell you how many mph you are doing, so why don't fuel gages show you how many gallons it takes to fill the tank, and how many gallons are left inside?

Matthew also showed me where to find the screen which is now synonymous with Toyota hybrids, you know, the animation of the motor and the engine switching back and forth from each other. My demo vehicle didn't have a dedicated 400h instruction manual, only one for the RX 330, which has a completely different screen configuration!

The big surprise for us here was that there are two electric motors on display instead of one, in effect making the 400h the first commercially available 4 wheel drive hybrid with an additional rear electric motor kicking in when needed for additional traction. I'm still working on figuring the details of this new configuration and will update this page as I learn more...

By night fall it was snowing up a storm, and traffic on Merritt Parkway back from New Haven was going 45 mph... So I really got a chance to give the 400h a work out in just about the worse road conditions possible, which made up for the car being so difficult to parallel park, despite the TV camera tucked in the back.

The roads to my house were not cleared and totally deserted. I don't think I could have made it back home in anything other than a SUV, which tends to justify owning one if you live out here a little bit, although storms like these only happen once or twice each winter.

I wouldn't have missed my afternoon at Yale for the world.  I am psyched the Yale School of Forestry has embraced its industrial ecology department. My only wish is for the consolidation of all their books into a publicly accessible space rather than tucked away in private faculty offices. Yale owns the books we all need to ferret through to get a precise overview of new materials sciences as they apply to environmental solutions.

I was really thrown for a loop when the owner of the popular newsstand on Chapel street told me I couldn't take notes, that they were in the business of "selling" information. I guess if you weren't born with a photographic memory, you're plum out of luck! It reminded me that's also what schools do.
They charge good money for students to attend. What if every single Tom, Dick & Harry suddenly wanted access to the information they charge their student body a pretty penny for? Save The Planet notwithstanding.

Once upon a time the Bridgeport public library had the best science & technology room in the state. Then when United Technologies bought Sikorsky, they created their own in-house library in Stratford, took back all their books, and journals, and closed down the room. This was where the CT Inventors Club (now called New England Inventors Club, a pale shadow of its former self...) met every month.

This is why I am so intent on providing a public space for the collection E magazine and myself have accumulated over the last 20 years. Right now the resource is going to waste, and my house is a
disaster... though I do my best to maximize its influence through my work.

The next day I had made plans to attend the Soundwaters luncheon at Pitney Bowes in Stamford. The topic of discussion was energy conservation in corporate buildings and green architecture in the state. The Lexus 400h fit right in parked out front.

I was getting quite comfortable driving high up in that seat, but next morning back to earth, I had to hand back the keys to the Toyota man. I drove 130 miles and averaged about 23 mpg, not bad considering the weather conditions.

Weird and curious things:

Every time you enter the vehicle you have to click "agree" on the TV screen, where it says: "Watching the screen while the vehicle is in motion can lead to serious accident."

Every time you enter the vehicle the steering wheel and rear-view mirror re-adjusts, which means you don't want to use the 400h in a hold up. It takes about 10 seconds for the car to get ready to roll.

The moon roof slide control and tilt control both did the same thing, making it very hard to simply close the roof without it immediately tilting open. The wiring was faulty.

The voice commands worked properly only half of the time. There's a radio "on" but no radio "off."

The return to analog dashboard dials gets thumbs up!

Top pix is faculty and students from the Industrial Ecology dept. at the Yale School of Forestry. Middle is the SoundWaters luncheon at PitneyBowes and bottom right is the RX 400h in front of Yale Skull & Bones.
(Yes, the white specs are snowflakes.)